What’s in a name? Britons, Angles, ethnicity and material culture from the fourth to seventh centuries
Keith J. Matthews
The Heroic Age: Issue 4, Winter (2001)
The emergence of various ‘ethnically’ based polities in early medieval Britain has long been a source of debate and confusion. I explore how ethnic self-identity is constructed and how the identities of the former Roman citizens of Britain changed. It is something that cannot be answered by archaeology alone; nor is a uniquely historical approach appropriate. A fully multidisciplinary examination is necessary.
The centuries encompassing the end of the Roman period and the emergence of the polities that eventually coalesced into the three major political units of the British mainland can be regarded as the basis for contemporary debates about national and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom. As such, they are of prime importance to our self-perception. The period has been studied by historians and archaeologists, but with no answers to these questions. More than in any other three centuries, virtually every supposed fact becomes a subject for repeated debate and speculation. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this period is that we can perceive a Britain that is in some sense ‘Roman’ in the mid fourth century, and several polities that are developing distinctive regional styles of material culture that we can retrospectively label ‘Welsh/Cornish’, ‘Saxon’ and ‘far northern’ by the mid seventh.
It is because the processes of change during the intervening centuries remain obscure that the period has long been fascinating to archaeologists. The problem is not one of interpreting large numbers of conflicting documents, sifting through complex material remains or of a complete dearth of material. The material is there and the story they seem to tell ought to be clear enough, but something does not quite add up: how does England become ethnically English? The question I shall pose in this paper is: how was it that the island, with inhabitants numbering somewhere between two and six million (extremes summarised in Salway: 544), managed so complete an apparent population change that the Britons, from being a substantial majority in AD 350, evidently became a minority by AD 650? What happened to the Britons that they were apparently extirpated from the lowlands and replaced by an Anglo-Saxon population?